The sound of the tires crunching on the gravel as a sleek black car pulls up to the castle is what catches Goro's attention.
He looks out the window, lifting the velvet curtain aside to get a better view. It's a royal car, the regal crest gleaming on the hood.
"Are we expecting someone today?" Goro asks, turning from the window to face Shido.
Shido, meanwhile, doesn't look up from his paperwork. His pen scribbles away, pressing too hard, almost whistling against the pressure.
"I hired someone new," he explains, but doesn't bother to elaborate further.
Shido waves a dismissive hand about. "Someone to help out with the horses."
Goro hadn't realized the castle needed more staff to assist with the horses' care. He glances out the window once more. Shido's office is three floors up, affording Goro a prime view of the new arrival. Sakura is getting older—perhaps he requested the extra assistance?
"They're experienced with horses, then?" Goro asks.
When Goro turns to him once more, there's a smirk on Shido's face, vanishing like a secret a moment later. "Not exactly. Don't concern yourself with it, though." Shido finally looks up, seizing a piece of paper atop the mess of the others to thrust out toward Goro. "Your list of duties for today. Don't slack off."
Goro takes it. Meeting with the chancellor before lunch. An interview with a journalist at two. Speaking with the royal artist about the upcoming Christmas portraits directly after.
Goro sighs. It's a tough life, being a beloved prince. Tougher still when he realizes that absolutely nobody would sympathize with him due to his privileged position. He sighs again, the exhale heavier than before, mouth twisting.
"I'll see to it, Your Majesty," Goro murmurs, eyes scanning the schedule before gently folding it into a neat square to slide into his pocket.
Shido grunts, satisfied, before redirecting his attention once more to his work, as if Goro has become little more than a stone statue in the corner of his office.
Goro looks out the window again as Shido's pen resumes its scratching. Someone climbs out of the backseat of the car, flanked by two palace workers and led briskly to the servant's entrance. Even craning his neck, Goro can't get a sufficient look at the new hire other than the back of his head, seeing little more than a mop of black curls and narrow shoulders.
The castle, looming in its opulent stonework against the white sky, would be much more impressive, Akira thinks, if it wasn't the product of dirty money and corrupt leaders.
The guards bringing him in keep aggressively knocking shoulders with him. He can't even say that he's surprised, not really. "Guess you learned what happens if you cross the king," one growls. "You're lucky he's such a forgiving guy."
Akira says nothing. He's learned the value of silence when dealing with men twice his size and doubly as eager to show it off.
They bypass the commanding front door, adorned with eye-catching iron lattice structures and surrounded by majestic statues, and head instead for a wooden, more nondescript door—the servant's entrance.
The door swings open with a creak, revealing a woman with short brown hair and a stern smile. Still, there's kindness behind her rigidity.
"Kurusu-kun, correct? We've been expecting you."
A firm hand on his shoulder pushes him in before the door shuts behind him. The hallway is narrow, lowly lit, and quiet save for the distant murmurings of other employees out of view. Without meaning to, Akira wonders exactly how much any of them are getting paid.
Or if they're like him, and aren't getting paid at all.
"So," the woman says, tucking her hair behind her ears. "I'm Makoto Niijima. I manage the staff, so I'm the best person to come to if you have any questions. Let me show you around a little."
She guides him down the hallway. Many of the doors they pass are ajar, allowing Akira a glimpse into a few rooms: storage closets, pantries, a sparsely-manned kitchen, and what seems to be a shabby dining hall, which also happens to be the source of the chatter.
"This is where the staff eats," Makoto explains, gesturing inward. A few heads stand out—a loud-mouthed blond boy mid-chew being one—along with a few plates of bread and vegetables.
"Seems a bit late for lunch," Akira mentions.
"The staff doesn't eat until after the royal family is finished with their meals," Makoto explains. She looks a bit surprised, like this is a detail that she fully expected Akira to already grasp. "You haven't... worked for royalty before."
"Oh. No." Experience isn't exactly a job requirement when workers are being blackmailed into providing service.
"Oh. Well. I'm sure you'll learn quickly," Makoto assures him. She continues walking, and Akira follows her around the corner into another hallway, somehow slimmer than the last. "Here are your sleeping quarters."
She pushes open the door to a vacant room that Akira nearly mistakes for a cleaning closet. It's certainly as small as one, and definitely smells as disturbingly sterile as one, a better home for a bottle of bleach than a person. The majority of the space is occupied with a single bed and a small cabinet sitting opposite of it meant for Akira's paltry amount of things. It feels eerily like a low-budget boarding school. Or jail.
"...where are the other beds?"
Makoto clears her room, looking somewhat uncomfortable for the first time since his arrival there. "There are no other beds."
"I'm not sleeping with the rest of the staff." It's not a question. He's already caught onto Shido's intended punishment in this action.
"...no." Makoto seems to suddenly find great interest in her shoes. "You were assigned your... own quarters... for some reason."
Considering that they're the size of a matchbox, Akira can figure out the reason fairly easily, he thinks. "Yeah. I got it."
"There probably just weren't any additional beds left," she reasons, seemingly eager to brush this oversight under the rug as rapidly as possible. "And you have to admit that you do get a lot more privacy like this."
If he's honest, Akira's not entirely certain that there will be room enough for his feet in this repurposed broom closet. He might have to settle for sleeping in fetal position.
"You'll get your daily schedule delivered under the door every day," Makoto continues, officially putting a lid on the matter. "And you're free to explore this area during your off time. Just don't roam about the rest of the castle."
If avoiding the rest of the castle—the nice parts, obviously—means avoiding Shido, too, Akira will count the order as a blessing.
"Where will I be helping out? The kitchens?" Akira asks.
"Oh. Actually, you'll be in the stables. Do you know anything about horses?"
Akira shakes his head. "Nothing." He couldn't tell a hoof from a horseshoe. The only saving grace is that he isn't afraid of horses, although exploiting such a fear is something Shido had probably been hoping for.
"That's all right," Makoto says. The more she talks, the more the kindness glimmers out from where she keeps it hidden behind her professionalism. "Sakura-san is the stablemaster, and he'll be able to teach you as you go. He's extremely capable."
"Sojirooooo. Don't smoke next to the horses!"
Sojiro huffs. He looks down at his stub of a cigarette, smoke curling from the tip into tendrils that wither away in the air, far away from any sensitive equine noses.
"I'm all the way over here," he insists, but stubs it out regardless on the nearest beam, leaving behind a tiny black scorch mark. He grinds the ashen butt under his shoe. "Besides, it's too cold to go smoke outside."
"Then don't smoke," Futaba whines. "The horses don't like it."
Sojiro glances at her where she's tucked herself into a bale of hay, thumbs moving lightning-fast on her phone. This is a rough time of year for her, even if she doesn't admit it out loud. It's been hard for both of them since Wakaba died. The only bright spot in Futaba's life these days seems to be horses, the quiet moments she spends stroking their manes, mumbling secrets to them. Sojiro wishes she had more people around her to bring her out of her shell, stimulate her, but—
A gentle knock on the stable door startles him. It slides open a moment later, bringing a biting December chill with it.
"Niijima-san," Sojiro says, straightening up. His eyes fall on the man next to her—hands in his pockets, glasses fogging, unruly hair. A chord is struck within him. "Right. They did say that was today."
The new stablehand. Like Sojiro isn't doing a more than adequate job—and always has—handling the horses himself.
"Sakura-san, this is Akira Kurusu," Makoto says, politely gesturing to him.
The kid's less than enthusiastic expression—along with his naive age—gives Sojiro an idea of just how he came to be here. He grunts in greeting. "I'm Sojiro Sakura." He scrubs a hand over the back of his neck. "They couldn't have stuck him in housekeeping?"
"I'm sure he'll be of use to you here," Makoto says. "The horses need a lot of care."
"Yeah. And teaching it takes time." He sighs. He knows arguing is fruitless; the decision of where to put this kid was the king's, and his mind isn't one Sojiro is interested in trying to bend. He steps aside to make room, beckoning them in. "Come on in. Shut the door behind you, you're letting all the cold in."
Makoto slides the door shut behind them, hay crunching underfoot her prim shoes.
"So," Sojiro says, wheeling on the new boy. "You good with horses?"
Makoto quickly jumps in. "Uh, he's new to, um. Well."
Sojiro suddenly wishes he hadn't stubbed that cigarette out so soon. He doesn't have time for this, certainly not when it's so close to the holidays and the palace fills up with every duke or duchess within three hundred miles of the place, and all of them want to go on snowy horse rides at all hours of the day. To now have to teach a newbie the basics of stable care is like some kind of Christmas curse.
He sucks in a deep breath. "You sure picked a busy time to start working." The kid's eyebrow twitches. Sojiro thinks he hit the nail on the head with his hunch about where exactly Akira Kurusu came from. "We got lots to do around here. Over there is my daughter Futaba—she doesn't work here, but..."
Sojiro trails off. The bale of hay she was using as an armchair thirty seconds ago is empty now, all traces of her gone.
"Sorry about that," he says after catching sight of Akira's blank look. "She exists, I promise. She's just... shy."
He looks around, from the stables that need mucking out to the food that needs measuring to the saddles that need polishing. Perhaps splitting the work isn't as much of an inconvenience as expected.
"Anyway," he says. "Ready to get started?"
He's not. Not so much by a long shot. Sojiro is brusque at best, and the amount of things Akira has to learn before the arrival of guests to the palace for the holidays could fill an entire year's worth of schooling, if not more. Which is to say nothing of the stakes associated with some of the tasks. Evidently feeding the horses incorrectly is a matter of life and death, each and every horse requiring a different grain-to-hay ratio with very specific measurements, each wholly dependent on the horse's lifestyle, recent changes in activity, and the season, of all things. The crown prince's horse, he's told, is by far the most active out of any of them, and requires a great deal of grain.
And while all of this information is mostly transcribed on the large chalkboard at the end of the barn, deciphering it is another thing altogether. Sojiro has a very unique method of notation.
It would also require Akira to keep the names of the horses straight, somehow. The only one he's really managed to identify with any sort of consistency is the one belonging to the crown prince—Robin Hood—and that's only because it stands out among the rest with its stark white color and blatantly European name.
Of course, it helps that the horse seems to have taken a liking to him. All of them have, really. It's as though they find his bumbling newness endearing, somehow. But Robin Hood in particular seems especially fond of him.
It makes the work easier, certainly. And while he anticipated—and, by now, perhaps even prefers—to do the work that may have been expected of someone working in a stable—everything from raking up muck to grooming the horses—today's work is mostly a matter of mental math and running about the castle.
They need a new shipment of feed. Knowing that it has to last at least a month, it's a question of factoring in daily rations for each horse, the way the season affects the amount of grazing they'll be doing, and the anticipated riding schedule of not only the currently residing royals, but the guests expected to arrive for the holidays.
Not that there's apparently any way to anticipate the crown prince's riding schedule, considering Sojiro's annoyed grumbling on the topic.
"Your best bet is to factor in at least three to four late-night rides a week for Robin Hood," Sojiro had explained. "More if the staff seem on edge."
All in all, it's a mathematical nightmare, and he's still looking over the proportions and amounts as he lets his steps carry him on a path that he hopes will lead him to the kitchens. The castle is large, to put it mildly, and Akira's still getting used to finding his way around.
At least until he opens a large, imposing door and suddenly finds himself on surprisingly plush carpet, a stark contrast compared to the barren wooden floor of the servants' wing.
Right. Makoto told him not to come here.
"What the hell, man! Watch where you're going!" someone hollers.
A glance down the hallway is telling enough. The young man in servant dress had been carrying so many boxes for them to be piled high enough to cut off his vision, so the impact—and the subsequent clang and clatter—does make sense.
It's just a shame about the boxes of Christmas decorations whose contents are now strewn across the floor… and the formerly glorious-looking golden armor in a similar state.
"Shit, shit, shit!"
Akira should have turned around. He knows this. He knows exactly what he's supposed to do in this instance—that he's already on thin ice with the king as it is.
"This is all your fault, you big dumb hunk of metal!"
But he also knows that, were he to turn around now, he'd never see this guy ever again. He'd get fired, and that would be that. Or… demoted, at least. Punished, somehow.
So he lets his steps carry him to where the young man is before reaching a hand out to him to help him back up to standing.
"...were you… talking to a suit of armor?"
"Uh," he starts, his hand moving to the back of his neck as he laughs, "yeah, guess so. You're the new guy, right? I'm Ryuji."
Akira is about to answer beyond a simple nod he offers Ryuji when their conversation is unexpectedly interrupted by the hard footfalls of… oh.
It's the first time Akira's seen the king since he earned his spot here as a stablehand. He had been intimidating then, imposing his might on anyone in his eyeline, but here on his own home turf, the intimidation is infinitely harsher.
"What on earth was that infernal racket?!" he yells. "I didn't realize we'd opened a daycare—honestly, I pay all of you entirely too much."
Akira wants to fire back with something about how he isn't getting paid at all, but then catches sight of Ryuji. Never before has he seen someone have all the color drain from their face, but it's certainly what seems to be happening right now as the king sees it fit to start encroaching on his personal space.
"Is this your fault? Because I'll have you know, that suit of armor is worth more than your entire family line combined. I could fire you, but it's not like either you or your family could ever pay me back for this priceless armor that's been in my family—the royal family—for centuries. Maybe indentured servitude—"
"The suit of armor moved, I had nothing to do with it!" Ryuji blurts out, the king's gaze narrowing further as Akira takes a rather decisive step forward, clearing his throat to stop him before he gets the chance to speak again.
"It was my fault."
What's he going to do, fire him? He doesn't want to be working here in the first place.
Shido seems to bristle long before he ever turns to look at him, as though he's building up his rage from his toes on up to prepare to face this little shithead of a teenager. A speck of insignificant, annoying dirt—a potential blemish on his otherwise flawless record.
Akira has the gall to smile.
Shido's eyes are the first to swivel off of Ryuji, abandoning him as his intended punching bag as he finally turns the whole of his body onto Akira.
"So it's you."
Shido looks at him, his glare like a burning wildfire. Akira can see his punishment come to life in Shido's eyes. "You already work in a pile of horse shit. Might as well sleep there, too, from now on." Turning to Ryuji, he points at the floor, evidently tired of being witnessed. "Clean that up. Now. And don't you dare feel too lucky that this guy picked up your slack."
The air between him and Shido seems to crackle with renewed hatred now that his attention is back upon him, Akira straightening his stance. If he wants him to grovel, he'll have to work harder than that.
"The next time you step so much as a toe out of line, I'm taking him down with you." Akira knows that he means Ryuji, even without the dismissive hand-wave in the direction of his first real friend at the palace. "So be careful around here, new boy. I do not tolerate clumsiness in my palace."
It's all he says before walking past Akira, careful to ensure that he shoulder-clocks him along the way.
By the time Akira gets back to the stable—never did manage to get the order info into the kitchens, after all—Sojiro just sighs. He looks tired.
"The palace called," he says, Akira feeling his stomach lurch. "Something about you being moved out of the palace sleeping quarters?"
"Into the hayloft," he agrees, nodding as if focusing on that detail in particular might make Sojiro ignore everything else.
"Already getting yourself into trouble, huh? What'd you do to get relegated there?" Akira opens his mouth to answer before he's interrupted. "Actually, don't answer that. I don't want to know. Give me those; I'll deliver them. Should've known not to send a newbie to navigate the palace maze."
He sighs again, but he doesn't seem angry. Instead, he tells Akira to get his bedroll and other belongings from his… well, not bedroom, per se. His broom closet. Everything needs to be relocated, evidently.
At least, he supposes, there will be room to stretch out his legs in his sleep.
The first night in the hayloft is fairly restless. Even through the sheets Akira lays out, the hay is sharp, poking through fabric, scratching his skin. It also smells overwhelmingly like a barn, of musty wood and earthy dirt and the odor of horse.
Akira wrinkles his nose, trying to will himself to sleep. It's just not comfortable, and all those splinters on the ceiling are distracting.
How did he manage to get relegated to the time-out corner so fast? He's barely been here, and he's already ruffling Shido's feathers.
Although a part of him wonders if that was inevitable.
He sighs, closing his eyes, trying to find a path to sleep. There's no point regretting it now. Letting Ryuji suffer the brunt of Shido's wrath for a harmless accident wouldn't have left him feeling very good, either, even if he would've been doing it from the warmth and comfort of his room inside the castle walls.
Akira's just about to start unsteadily drifting off when something leaps onto his chest, jerking him back awake, heart hammering.
He fumbles for the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, tugging on the string that flicks it to life. Akira blinks a few times.
It's a cat. A black cat—mostly, save for a few spots of white—with startlingly blue eyes. Akira looks at it. It looks back.
"Where did you come from?" Akira asks, propping himself up on his elbows to get a better look. He doesn't recall Sojiro mentioning a local barn cat, to say nothing of a cat that belongs to the kingdom. Surely it'd be adorned with a collar if it did.
The cat meows in Akira's face in a way that feels almost irritated, like Akira's intruding on his sacred space. Perhaps it sleeps here in the stables?
"Look," Akira says. "We'll share, all right?"
The cat almost seems to be considering it. Then it hops off the hayloft onto the dark ground below, and is promptly swallowed up by the shadows as it slinks away. Akira watches it go, nearly wishing it had stayed, if only to feel a little less alone.
He tugs the light off again, bathing the barn in a peaceful darkness, interrupted only by dim rays of moonlight.
It can't get any worse, Akira tells himself, and begs the fates not to consider it a challenge.
To say that the castle is vast would be a gross understatement, with almost as many hallways as there are rooms, each one of them seeming more or less identical to the last. It would be hard enough to find one's way around even without the addition of service entrances and employee-designated hallways—not that Akira is always focused on abiding by that rule—but he wasn't even told how to get around the swankier parts of the palace that he's now left to traverse on account of his work in the stables. If anything, he simply wants to complete this task within the time allotted, wishing desperately by now that he'd been given a map.
His gaze moves to the registration papers in his hand—paperwork for the king to sign to confirm the acquisition of a new horse into the royal stable—and wonders why on earth he's been tasked with this, of all things.
Sojiro is treating him rather like a sponge of information, he thinks. There's only so much he can soak up in one week.
He's staring at the word laundry, thinking that he must surely have passed this particular door not too long ago, when he catches sight of someone else coming down the hallway, whose own attention is momentarily focused on a folder neatly perched open in his palm.
"Excuse me," Akira starts, slowing his steps to a stop as he waits for the young man with the folder to notice him before continuing himself. "Could you tell me where the king's office is?"
The sound of the young man's laughter is refreshing, light with surprise—as though he can't believe that he's being asked this at all.
The man looks up, turning to him. Akira's half-expecting a middle-aged member of the staff he hasn't met yet, but this man is young, practically his own age. He's also rather well-groomed, not to mention... handsome.
"I most certainly could," he says, voice pleasant. He looks Akira up and down. "Though I don't recognize you. I don't assume that an intruder would be so bold as to ask for directions. Are you the new hire?"
"You're younger than I thought you'd be. Well, I do suppose that His Majesty's whims have never been too predictable. I certainly know that I have fallen victim to them on more than one occasion."
Who is he? His dress and demeanor are formal enough, even in spite of the icy passive aggression lingering beneath his tone and the brilliant smile to cover for it. Concierge, maybe? It occurs to Akira that, for all of Makoto's best efforts to educate him on the goings-on around the palace, there is little that he really knows about the day-to-day around here—not to mention the who's who of the residents and the staff.
"I can't imagine that most people would talk about the king that way," Akira says.
For a moment, there's a flicker of something—astonishment, perhaps?—that passes across the young man's face before he grins again, evidently delighted by this turn of events. "Few people speak their minds as freely as you do around here. Maybe your presence will serve to brighten up the whole palace."
When he arrived here, the last thing he ever thought he'd be doing would be brightening up anyone's day. So Akira doesn't say anything, not that the other man seems even remotely deterred by his silence.
"I do hope we'll see each other again," he states, his smile still as bright as before. "At any rate. You're headed down the hall and to the left. I do believe it would be difficult for you to miss it."
Akira gives him a nod of thanks before he's off again, a glance at his watch telling him that he's already falling behind. Well. Considering his sleeping situation, he supposes befriending the rest of the staff was always a bit of a pipe dream.
It's several hours later in his office that Goro takes note of the fact that his mind does, in fact, keep gravitating back to the new hire—the help. It's been distracting enough in its own right, but more importantly—
"...then you'll have the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new conservatory at 4 p.m., Lady Ann will be arriving at 6 p.m., and dinner with His Majesty will take place at 8:30 p.m."
—this is the longest he's gone in years without thinking about Shido.
In the background, Makoto clears her throat.
Waving a dismissive, non-committal hand, Goro shakes his head. "I have the schedule in front of me, too, you know. I'm not quite so useless yet that I've forgotten how to read."
"If I may speak freely," she starts, Goro turning his gaze up at her as he waits for her to continue, "you have seemed exhausted of late. Perhaps an earlier bedtime would not go remiss."
Restful sleep. What a strange notion. He's not sure he's so much as familiar with the concept.
"I'll take it into consideration, thank you."
One of the first things Sojiro tells Akira during his training is that the members of the royal family are notoriously unpredictable regarding their riding habits.
Well—not all of them. Mainly just the crown prince, apparently. Still, it's enough reason for him and Sojiro to eat dinner in shifts, one person staying behind in case someone does want to ride.
He runs into Sojiro on his way back from dinner, the crunch of fresh snow sounding underfoot as he makes his way through the courtyard to slip into the barn.
A quick scan of the stalls makes the telltale signs of a cold sweat start to run down his back—one of the horses is missing.
And not just any horse, either. Robin Hood.
Twisting his body this way and that, as though he might find Robin Hood behind him, Akira feels himself start to panic. God knows what punishment he'll be in for if a royal horse disappears on Akira's watch. He couldn't have gone far, right? The barn wasn't unsupervised for that long—
His feet run him back out into the courtyard, panicked, just in time for the sound of a horse's footfalls to make itself known, the telltale clip-clop drawing his attention as he skids to a stop.
Well, at least that answers the question of where Robin Hood went. Relief floods his chest.
It's the same attractive young man from before, the one he'd assumed to be the concierge. (Do palaces have concierges? If they did, would they have the permission to be riding the crown prince's horse? Akira can't imagine that being the case.)
"You know," Akira starts, gesturing at the pure white Arabian, "that's the crown prince's horse."
The young man just chuckles, a single gloved hand coming up to cover his laughter even as his shoulders tremble slightly. He looks awfully comfortable atop the horse, like a skilled rider. "So it is. I suppose I won't tell him if you won't."
Akira can't say he's particularly fond of this deal or its implications. There really isn't a way to sink any lower than sleeping in a hayloft… probably. He hopes there isn't.
"...what's in it for me?"
Again, the gentleman starts to laugh, a bright grin forming on his features as he climbs off the horse to take hold of the reins. "Dear me, already resorting to bribery, are we? Most of the staff aren't quite so quick to allow themselves to be corrupted."
"I tend to prefer to do the corrupting."
For a moment—Akira still trying to parse just how flirtatious that must have sounded, and how flirtatiously he meant for it to sound—the man's eyes widen noticeably, his hand moving to his chest as he stares.
Did he go too far this time? The borderline coquettish atmosphere had been chasing them around since their first interaction, hadn't it?
But then, the young man smiles again, every hint of his earlier surprise seeming to have evaporated as he laughs. "My, you certainly are outspoken—not to mention bold. Are you always this forward with all your conquests, or is it just me?"
Well. That didn't go nearly as badly as he thought it might.
So he shakes his head, his bare hand tightening on the edge of the stable door. It occurs to him that he hasn't even noticed that he's half-frozen by this point. "It's just you."
"In that case, I'm flattered. Unfortunately, I really do still have matters to attend to and cannot spend all my time out here cavorting with you."
Akira reaches out for Robin Hood's reins before his brain can think to stop him, and he shakes his head. "I'll take care of him from here. Go take care of your work."
"I'd expected—" The pleasant surprise that crosses his face is replaced with another soft laugh just a moment later, and the other man smiles. "Well, never mind that, I suppose. I do appreciate the help."
"I'll make sure the crown prince won't find out, so you don't have to worry."
Again, that same bright laughter, gentle and shockingly genuine considering his overall demeanor and dress. "Why, thank you. I wouldn't quite know what to do with myself without the help."
Even as the young man makes his way back into the palace, Akira leading Robin Hood into the stable to get him un-saddled and brushed for the night, he still can't quite decipher his own intent from the interaction. He really was flirting, wasn't he? More so now than the last time, even.
Even while working beside Lala at Crossroads, he'd never taken any of the customers up on their flirting, and the same had been true through his time at school, no matter how many girls had confessed to him. And yet, there was something that felt undeniably different about… this guy.
This guy, whose name he still doesn't know.
Next time, he tells himself. Next time, he'll find out for sure.